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Emil Nervander

Emil Fredrik Nervander
Born November 16, 1840, Helsinki. Died January 27, 1914, Harjavalta.

MA 1869, Imperial Alexander University

Art History researcher, journalist and author
Art and theatre critic 1868–73, Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper
Journalist 1880, Morgonbladet newspaper
Founding member of the Finnish Antiquarian Society, 1870
Secretary of the Turku Cathedral historical monument organising committee, 1875–79
Member of the Turku Cathedral Restoration Committee, 1894–96

Photo: National Board of Antiquities
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by Joe McVeigh

Passion for Medieval Art

Emil Nervander, who was from an academic family, came to study Literature and Art History at the Imperial Alexander University, completing his Bachelor’s Degree in 1869. Nervander is said to have been an exceptionally fast and skilled writer. He already worked as a playwright during his time at university, and later on he also published collections of poetry and short stories. Furthermore, he worked as an art and theatre critic for the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet between 1868 and 1873 and as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Åbo Posten between 1874 and 1879.

As was typical of the period, Nervander made a long excursion abroad during his student years. In particular, visiting the medieval cities of Germany aroused in him a strong desire to protect medieval art. Upon returning to Finland, he began working towards this goal, and in 1870 he was actively involved in founding the Finnish Antiquarian Society, which collected historically significant art for preservation. Nervander was instrumental in increasing appreciation of old Finnish art when he led several expeditions to gather materials; in all there were eight art historical expeditions between 1871 and 1901. The expeditions gathered over 3,000 drawings, watercolours, blueprints and photographs, which are kept in the National Museum of Finland.

As the Secretary of the Turku Cathedral Restoration Committee, Nervander laid the groundwork for the study of Finnish medieval painting. For instance he discovered that the frescos in the old stone church of Isonkyrö were inspired by illustrations from abroad. Nervander was also one of the first iconographers in Finland. His literary output consisted mainly of studies on church paintings and medieval art in general. Nervander’s magnum opus is considered to be Den kyrkliga konstern I Finland under medeltiden I-II (‘Ecclesiastical Art in Finland During the Middle Ages I-II’), published between 1887 and 1888.

A picture from page 52 of Nervander’s 1896 book Lojo kyrka och dess medeltidsmålningar (‘Lohja church and its medieval wall paintings’).

Nervander’s interest in art was not limited to research, as he was also involved in restoration work. His methods, however, were the subject of harsh criticism from his contemporaries. Nervander is said to have traced murals in chalk onto a plate, after which they were covered with lime wash and re-painted according to the traced models. In the colouration of the paintings he emphasised clarity and vivid colours. Many experts believe that this method ruined several of the most important murals in Finland’s churches. The most notable restoration work carried out by Nervander took place in St. Lawrence’s Church in Lohja, on which he published his 1896 book Lojo kyrka och dess medeltidsmålningar (‘Lohja church and its medieval paintings’). In some cases, the Lohja church being one, it has been possible to undo the damage caused by Nervander.

As a publisher, Nervander made a significant contribution to Finnish literature by publishing the collected works and biography of Fredrik Cygnaeus as well as the 1900 collection of articles entitled Blad ur Finlands kulturhistoria (‘A page out of Finland’s cultural history’). Art and ecclesiastical painting were a constant source of fascination for Nervander, and among his final publications were treatises on the painter Severin Falkman (1902) and the church painter Mikael Toppelius (1905).

In Etu-Töölö, a neighbourhood in Helsinki, there is a street called Nervanderderinkatu, which is named after the physicist and meteorologist Johan Jakob Nervander, the father of Emil Nervander. Along with Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Johan Vilhelm Snellman, J.J. Nervander was a central figure in the Launtaiseura, a famous society of young academics. More information is available on the “Nervanderinkatu” episode of the Street Credible Scientists series on Yle Areena (in Finnish)

Sources and further reading:

Photo: Museovirasto.


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